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No 'Universal' Best Practice To Save Yourself From Tornadoes

A tornado forms over I-40 in Midwest City, Okla., during rush hour on Friday.
Alonzo Adams
A tornado forms over I-40 in Midwest City, Okla., during rush hour on Friday.

Friday's tornadoes came less than two weeks after an F-5 tornado destroyed a large section of Moore, just south of Oklahoma City. Both episodes raise two sides of one question: When caught in a tornado's path, should you run or hide?

For Morning Edition the day after the powerful tornado on May 20, NPR's Wade Goodwyn spoke with Molly Edwards, who was covered in pink insulation and standing on the rubble of her home with her family.

Just before the tornado slammed into her neighborhood, she and her husband had rushed to pick up their children from Plaza Towers Elementary School. Seven third-graders later died at the school after suffocating under fallen debris.

"We thought it might be safer for them to be there than to be here 'cause we didn't have a shelter, but we just didn't want to chance it, so we went and picked them up and just decided we would get in the car and head away from it," she said. "And that's probably what saved us, 'cause if we would've all been in here, somebody would have ended up hurt."

Her family's story was just the tip of an iceberg.

Barely Making It Out In Time

Moore City Manager Steve Eddy says the casualty count — 24 — wasn't higher because many people fled.

"I promise you," he says, "thousands of people left Moore, Okla., on that afternoon."

This reaction runs counter to the current counsel by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other authorities. They advise residents to shelter in place in an interior room with no windows until a tornado passes.

But when it comes to major tornadoes, this advice is being increasingly ignored by Oklahomans.

Meteorologist Gary England has been tracking tornadoes for KWTV in Oklahoma City for the last 40 years.

"If you want to live through a major tornado, and you have time — 10, 15 minutes — and you know where the tornado is, what direction it's going and you know what direction to go, you would be foolish not to evacuate the premises, get in the vehicle, and leave the area," he says.

England was actually able to help Oklahomans do that for the May 20 tornado. Through his station's helicopter camera, he could see where drivers were stuck in traffic, and he tried to lead them away from the twister.

"We were giving street directions — where to go and all that type of thing 'cause a lot of people were in their cars. And let me tell you, a few of them just made it by the hair on their chinny-chin-chin," he says.

Storm At Rush Hour

But Friday afternoon's tornadoes in Oklahoma were a lesson in what can happen if too many try to flee at once.

Combined with the rush hour, traffic on the interstates came to a halt. Cars were lifted and flipped upside down, 18-wheelers were mauled, and a mother and child died after being sucked out of their car as it was lifted into the sky. It was bad, but it could have been even worse had the tornadoes not dissipated.

Just hours before those tornadoes slammed into the Oklahoma City area, NPR's Goodwyn spoke with Rick Smith of the National Weather Service. Smith, the warning-coordination meteorologist in Norman, Okla., agreed that fleeing a massive tornado could be a good strategy — if your escape path was wide open.

"To me, if I lived in a rural area in western Oklahoma where the population was 100, it would be a very easy decision. If there's a tornado coming, and I've got just a few minutes, and I know that I can drive five minutes south, and park and wait for it to pass, I would probably do that," he said.

Oklahoma City is a different scenario completely. Residents would need much more than five minutes — or even 45 minutes — to make an escape, he said, since everyone else in the area is also trying to flee.

Saturday, after the tornadoes had passed, Smith spoke with Goodwyn again, and heard his own advice from the day before.

"That's eerie to listen to that because that is precisely what happened yesterday," he said.

He says his team did try to put out extra guidelines ahead of time, considering the timing of the storms. Though there were success stories of people escaping the Moore tornado, Smith says Friday's situation was very different.

"[The Moore tornado] was at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on a Monday, not complicated by flash flooding and other storms in the area. All this happening in the afternoon rush hour was just a recipe for ... disaster," he says.

Finding The Right Messaging

So what are meteorologists supposed to do if every situation has its own swirl of risk factors?

"There is no universal, one-size-fits-all guidance or safety rules for tornadoes," Smith says. "I don't think I've ever had a more helpless feeling as a meteorologist watching the TV coverage than seeing a helicopter shot of a line of headlights stranded, stopped dead still on the Interstate ... knowing that this horrendous beast of a storm was bearing down on them."

Smith says he doesn't have answers to such a complex issue, and that tackling it will take a group effort by "people who understand — or attempt to understand — human behavior and messaging and all kinds of things."

In Moore, those who hunkered down as best they could died anyway, including a mother and infant who'd taken shelter in a 7-Eleven's metal freezer box.

Friday, Oklahomans got in their cars and trucks to flee, but some of them died at the wheel, including a mother and infant.

Without a storm shelter, Oklahoma can be a dangerous place.

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